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Acquitting the Guilty: Two Case Studies on Jury Misgivings and the Misunderstood Standard of Proof

NCJ Number
Criminal Law Forum Volume: 2 Issue: 1 Dated: (Autumn 1990) Pages: 1-44
H R Uviller
Date Published
45 pages
This article examines false acquittals and jury errors.
Acquittal is false only when the verdict is voted despite evidence of guilt that should have been persuasive with the jury. In many cases, the jury votes contrary to the evidence for reasons such as sympathy and prejudice. The false acquittal is generated by the normal, uncorrupted process by which a lay jury attempts to reach an understanding of the events in issue. The jurors' effort to reach a conclusion concerning a historical fact is altogether different from any process for decision with which they are familiar from their ordinary pursuits. Jurors are invariably instructed by the judge that they have the exclusive responsibility to find the facts; they are then told at length just how they are to go about finding those facts. In some cases, the judge's instruction is quite impossible to apply literally. As a result, jurors regularly vote between first- and second-degree murder, with its awesome consequence, on a charged distinction that defies rational understanding. Throughout the struggle of deliberation, the prime agony for a conscientious juror must be the assessment of the certainty of her belief that an alleged fact is true. However, to be absolutely assured that no innocent person will ever be convicted, not ten but tens of thousands of guilty people must be acquitted despite the strongest evidence of their culpability. To have a functional system of criminal justice, hopes for perfect proof must be abandoned and juries assured that they need not reach the blissful state of perfect certainty in order to render a true verdict according to the evidence. 66 footnotes


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